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Shirley Lauro’s 1991 play tracing the Vietnam War experiences of six women who served in various capacities (an intelligence officer, an entertainer, a “Red Cross Girl,” and three nurses) has a lot that it wants to say about duty and service. Lauro based A Piece of My Heart on an oral history of 26 women who volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Lysistrata and China Beach aside, tales of war from a woman’s perspective aren’t exactly thick on the ground. But in adapting these real women’s voices into a two-and-a-half-hour theatrical piece, Lauro flattens them into broad types. As a result, the overt and ham-fisted theatricality of A Piece of my Heart superimposes itself over what these women went through, obscuring exactly the thing it means to reveal.
Out at the Gunston Arts Center, director Jason M. Beagle has the six actors continually rotating positions around HannaH J Crowell’s multilevel stage. They’re forever trotting up and down its steps, toting benches and swapping hats as they declaim extended monologues or take up temporary roles in one another’s tales.
That’d be fine, if the playwright and production allowed any of these interactions between the actors to stand on their own without feeling compelled to comment on them. But few exchanges pass without getting followed up by a musical interlude—courtesy the guitar-strummin’ stylin’s of country-and-western singer MaryJo (Melissa W. Bailey). According to Lauro’s script, “MaryJo, as she sings these songs, often is singing the sub-text of the play.” The problem, in fact, is that there’s little if anything that’s sub- about her text. Over and over again, these songs listlessly underscore the point of the scenes that accompanies them in a less-than-illuminating manner, as when the women get indoctrinated into military life to a dolorous rendition of “Knick Knack Paddy Whack.”
The production ticks all the mandated boxes: the women’s naive expectations of what Vietnam will be like, their shock and disgust upon seeing the horrors of war, their flirtations with men, booze, and dope,
their confrontations with enemy fire and military brass. The second act, with its
lightning-round, Movie of the Week explorations of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, and Agent Orange disease, is never anything less than terribly earnest, sincerely felt…and merely dutiful.
But there is Jeri Marshall, bringing shrewd intelligence to her intelligence officer, and there is Anne Veal, one of those D.C. actors whose mere presence in a production is enough to incline you favorably toward it. Watch her face, here, as she is informed that “sexual involvements of any kind” are forbidden; it’s one of the few moments that registers as real in an otherwise schematic and overdetermined evening.